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How Did Jesus become Christian?

How Jesus Became Christian. Barrie Wilson. New York: St. Martinís Press, 2008.

This is a marvelous and provocative book. The title tells it all: Jesus wasnít originally Christian at all, but only became Christian over time. Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died a Jew: he taught obedience to the Jewish law as a matter of course. But in the letters of Paul, and in Christian theology and history, the image of Jesus becomes shifted -- he is not a Jew, but a universal savior who started a new religion.  The Christian rejection of Judaism in turn led to persecution of the Jews with tragic consequences down through history.

Most scholars agree that the later tradition modified Jesus' views, though few indeed would follow Wilson in proposing that Paul was actually opposed to James and the other early church leaders, or in forthrightly confronting the problem of schisms in the early church.  

None of these ideas will come as a great revelation to readers of this web site or The Lost Religion of Jesus, but it will be a revelation to many Christians and to many scholars. Wilson, therefore, is a key and innovative voice in prompting Jesus scholarship (and Christianity) to look seriously at this "mother of all schisms" in the early church. 

Wilson outlines the background of Jesusí time, which was the Hellenization of the Jewish world and the reaction to it. He then describes the two movements in early Christianity, the Jesus movement and the Christ movement. The Jesus movement has today died out, but the Christ movement started by Paul is today the biggest religion in the world. Gradually the religion of Jesus, centering on his distinctive interpretation of Torah, became a religion about Jesus, the dying-and-rising Savior God of a new pagan mystery religion.

On the actual subject matter of the book, namely how Jesus became Christian, it is hard to fault either his method or his conclusions. Well, there may be some minor problems; I think heís a bit too hard on Paul. And what exactly is gnosticism, anyway, for Wilson? That point seems to have been lost, also. But these are relatively minor problems in a structure that I am not only fundamentally sympathetic with, but believe is vitally important.  We need to understand the history of early Christianity as a conflict between Jewish and gentile Christianity.

The main shortcoming of the book is a relatively minor but critical subtopic, namely his treatment of the Ebionites. In what follows it may seem that I have fundamental problems with the book, because Iím devoting so much space to my criticisms, but that is actually not the case. It may seem a bit sectarian to concentrate just on the 10% of the book I donít like, but as I explain below, it really is important, because if scholars just follow what Wilson has done to the Ebionites, we really have lost the essence of their message as well as the message of the historical Jesus.

The Ebionites are important to Wilsonís topic, because they are the true successors of the historical Jesus who was a Jew. They are, in fact, the "Jesus movement," the successors of Jesus and the early "Jesus movement" headed by James, the brother of Jesus. He spends perhaps about a tenth of his book talking just about the Ebionites, presenting them as the opponents of Paul who were loyal to the original religion of Jesus.

But who are these Ebionites and what do they believe? For Wilson, they are simply Torah-observant Jews with a bit of a different slant on the Jewish law. They seem to be Pharisees with a Galilean accent, following a teacher with a flair for public relations which unfortunately got out of hand and got him into trouble -- big trouble -- with the Romans. They practiced circumcision, they observed the kosher laws, they worshiped in the Temple -- and thus presumably practiced animal sacrifice, though he doesnít absolutely spell that out.  Jesus looks like just another Pharisee, and itís hard to understand, at first glance, what all the fuss was about between Jesus and other Jews.

Problems with this picture of the Ebionites

But Wilsonís supporting evidence for this picture is just not there, and I will quickly cite six factual problems, any one of which would be fatal to this picture.  Yes, the Ebionites were Jews, but they were dissident Jews who differed sharply from their fellow Jews in some significant ways.

The first step we should take when looking at the Ebionites is to let them speak for themselves before we evaluate whether they were right or wrong about Jesus.  The picture of the Ebionites that Wilson uses is largely that of the "Christian Pharisees" in the book of Acts, who are legalistic Jews emphasizing the kosher laws, circumcision, and the like (despite Wilson's disparagement of Acts as a historical source).  If we look at how the Ebionites described themselves, and how Paul describes his disputes with the Jewish Christians in his letters, we come up with a very different view.

1. Falsehoods in the "Old Testament"

Wilson states that "Certainly they [the Ebionites] used the Septuagint [Greek translation of the Old Testament], since they honored and followed the Old Testament."

This is incorrect. The Ebionites drew a sharp distinction between the law of God and the scriptures, and this set them apart from other Jews. "For the scriptures have had joined to them many falsehoods against God on this account," says Homilies 2.18. Epiphanius likewise says of the Ebionites, "And neither do they receive the whole Pentateuch of Moses, but cast out certain passages" (Panarion 30.18.7). This is essential to understanding their rejection of animal sacrifice, because the Ebionites held that the commands to offer animal sacrifice were part of the "falsehoods" introduced into the Old Testament. Which brings me to my second point --

2. Rejection of Animal Sacrifice

Wilson does not mention, and apparently isnít even aware of, the Ebionite rejection of animal sacrifice. This is critical to understanding the Ebionite position. The Ebionite gospel has Jesus saying, "I have come to destroy the sacrifices" (Panarion 30.16.5), and "He [God] then who at the first was displeased with the slaughtering of animals, not wishing them to be slain, did not ordain sacrifices as desiring them" (Homilies 3.45). The Ebionites explained the Old Testament commands to offer animal sacrifices as part of the "falsehoods" added to the scriptures.

Ebionite opposition to animal sacrifice has clear reflections in the New Testament. Stephen (Acts 7) delivers a speech with remarkable parallels to Recognitions 1, comparing animal sacrifice and Temple worship to idolatry. Jesus says on two occasions, "I require mercy, not sacrifice"; and Jesus is killed following an incident in the temple in which he disrupts the animal sacrifice business. It is apparent that the Ebionites felt this was an attack on animal sacrifice as such -- and not just Jesus getting upset with the moneychangers, as Wilson portrays it.

3. A Pre-existent Jesus?

Wilson states, "nor did they [the Ebionites] think that Jesus Ďpreexistedí his human form in any fashion" (p. 100). This is also wrong or at least highly problematic. The Ebionites did have an idea of the "true prophet" who is continually appearing throughout history in different forms. Jesus, for the Ebionites, was the "true prophet" predicted by Moses at Deuteronomy 18:15-18 (Recognitions 5.10, Panarion 30.18.5). Recognitions 1.33 says that the true prophet appeared to Abraham, and Epiphanius adds that the Ebionites thought that the Christ appeared in Adam, and appeared to the patriarchs (Panarion 30.3.5).

This does not absolutely imply pre-existence for Jesus: it is arguable that the Ebionites held a Nestorian-type position, that "Christ" and "Jesus" are two different entities altogether, so that while Jesus was the Christ (and also the true prophet), it was because the eternal Christ-spirit entered into Jesus. But I donít think that Wilson had this sort of subtlety in mind; more than likely, he just wasnít familiar with the Ebionite idea of the true prophet continually appearing throughout history at all.

4. Wine or Water?

On p. 158, Wilson says that the Didache describes the Ebionite community meal of wine and bread. This is not accurate. The Ebionites took communion with water instead of wine (Panarion 30.16.1), and objected to alcohol in much the same way that Islam would later come to reject it (Homilies 11.15). The Ebionite community meal may have had similarities to that described in the Didache, but it certainly was not a meal of wine and bread.

5. The Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15)

Wilson states that "they [the Ebionites] acted as though they knew nothing of a Jerusalem conference setting up a dual mission."  You could make a case for this, but it is highly problematic, and I think that Wilson isn't making a nuanced case against this conference having occurred; most likely he just isn't aware of the references in the Homilies to the apostolic decree.

The apostolic decree which came out of the Jerusalem conference prohibited blood, things strangled, things offered to idols, and sexual immorality (Acts 15:29). Homilies 7.4 and 7.8 refer to these items, giving them an Ebionite twist, and saying that it really requires vegetarianism and abstinence from all dead flesh altogether. In short, it appears that the Ebionites were citing the apostolic decree against Paul, because Paul didnít think it was necessary to abstain from meat (Romans 14) or abstain from things offered to idols (I Corinthians 8 - 10).

This is clearly evidence that the Ebionites felt that the Jerusalem conference did occur in some form (probably without Paul present), and that it supported their point of view.  It is also evidence that, contrary to Wilsonís statements (p. 143), that there was a Jerusalem conference -- or some meeting that produced the apostolic decree -- in some form, though almost certainly not in the way that Acts presents it. It is unlikely that the author of Acts (otherwise very sympathetic to Paul) would have introduced the apostolic decree, which directly attacks Paulís views in I Corinthians 8 - 10, unless it were actually widely known to have some basis in fact.  Such a deadly dispute might have been passed over in silence; it would not have been invented by an author clearly sympathetic to Paul.

6. Paul and Meat Offered to Idols

Wilson states on p. 239: "In I Corinthians, when discussing dietary food practices, Paul showed no awareness of the food requirements allegedly imposed on the Gentiles by James." Again, this is not correct. One of the key contentious items in the apostolic decree (Acts 15:29) is the rejection of things offered to idols. Paul, in I Corinthians 8 - 10, argues that it is all right to eat what has been offered to idols. Paul is clearly aware of this food requirement, and is arguing against it. Paul knows that other Christians view things differently: "not all possess this knowledge" (8:7), and "if food is a cause of my brother's falling, I will never eat meat" (8:13).  This passage strongly supports Wilson's general thesis that Paul was opposed to the early church leaders, so it's not clear why he doesn't acknowledge this.  

Paul is also aware of Jamesí (and the later Ebionitesí) opposition to meat and wine, and arguing against the requirement to abstain from meat and wine at Romans 14, even though "the weak man eats only vegetables" (14:2) and does not understand this.  As a concession to this faction in the church, he admits that "it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble" (14:21).  This is one of the key pieces of evidence concerning the opposition between the Jesus movement and Paul.

Wilson has almost completely missed the point of what the Ebionites were about. He has correctly understood that the Ebionites were Jews, but he has misunderstood the ways in which the Ebionites dissented from orthodox Judaism. He has the Ebionites represented as basically Pharisees with a Galilean accent. There was significant and deep opposition between the Ebionites and orthodox Judaism, which was completely unrelated to what they thought of Jesus. The Ebionites were unhappy with a number of key elements in Judaism, most notably the bloody animal sacrifice cult and the use of scripture to support it and other things they didnít like (such as war).

I wish that Wilson had gotten a chance to read my book, The Lost Religion of Jesus, or that he had looked more closely at the ancient sources.  (The Homilies and Recognitions are both online in several places, including this web site, but are not cited by Wilson in the section on "internet resources," p. 306).  In fact, Iím surprised that he cites these sources in such a careless manner. When citing the Ebionite writings, he twice mentions the Homilies (one of the two longest sources at least partially of Jewish Christian origin), but he never mentions the equally important Recognitions (p. 101, 165)! And he nowhere mentions the Panarion by Epiphanius. The three basic sources for understanding the Ebionites are the Homilies, the Recognitions, and Panarion 30 of Epiphanius -- and Wilson has apparently only heard of one of them. (There are other sources, Ireneaus and Hippolytus spring to mind, but these three are where everyone should start.) To his credit, he does mention the Recognitions in the back of the book in his "Timelines" section (p. 272), but does not indicate that this is a Jewish Christian source.

What Difference Does it Make?

This is really too bad, and I am sorry that the first way in which Wilson will probably be introduced to me (if he reads this at all) is as a result of my criticisms of his views in this review. I hope that people wonít get the wrong idea, because Iím really only disagreeing with about 10% of his book which Iím talking about here, and have largely passed over the other 90% concerning for which I have great regard. But I donít seen how to avoid talking about this, because it really is essential to my message about Jesus.

One of the key things Wilson wants to do is to make a difference in how people see Jesus. "Going forward, we need to recover the humanity and Jewishness of Jesus at the popular level, not just in academia" (p. 255, emphasis in original). Right on! But what, in this view, are the views of Jesus that we need to emphasize? That we need to circumcise our male infants, or keep kosher, or not work on Saturday instead of Sunday? 

In my view, what the Ebionites stood for was simple living, pacifism, and vegetarianism. They believed in simple living because the name "Ebionite" comes from "ebionim," meaning the poor -- they did not simply believe in helping the poor or giving the poor, they were the poor. They were pacifists because they were against war, all war, especially the so-called wars to defend "civilization." They were vegetarians, James was a vegetarian, Jesus taught vegetarianism and gave his life because he disrupted the animal sacrifice business in the temple. This is what really made them different from other Jews -- and most other Christians, as well.

There is a real significance to Jesus, and while I wouldnít just copy everything that the Ebionites said or did, they were on the right track and had the best understanding of Jesus of any of the ancient groups. I just wish I could bring Wilson over to a more enlightened view of the Ebionites.

Keith Akers
April 28, 2008 (slightly revised May 7, 2008)